by Rebecca D. Higgins
There’s something about a parade that brings out the kid in all of us. Perhaps it’s that festive atmosphere that comes with a big-party celebration. And the Fourth of July is exactly that–a party, a big birthday bash. Now, I have a confession to make. When I was a little kid, I somehow thought all of the hoopla surrounding the Fourth–the parades, the picnics, the fireworks–were all about me. It was MY birthday, after all. NO KIDDING!
But then my father, a high school American history teacher, made sure I understood the significance of its being a national holiday. I knew that it was on July 4, 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. I knew that those men who boldly affixed their signatures to that parchment did so with a tenacious resolve as they penned their concluding sentence: “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Those were no mere idle words. Those American forefathers understood that the dream of freedom–freedom not only for themselves but also for their posterity–such a freedom came with a price tag. It meant that they would have to give of themselves. For some it would cost their very lives; for others, their fortunes. And yet for all, it was with a sense of sacred honor that they declared some truths to be self-evident–that all men are created equal.
The terms liberty and equality are woven into the fabric of our American lives. We use them a lot, but like other words in our vocabulary their meanings can change depending on the viewpoint of the one speaking. Those who have seen the passing of a few years, well recognize that ever-changing meanings of words and expressions can be confusing and block true communication. For instance, I’m not so sure that my over 80-year-old mother would understand American Idol judge Randy Jackson’s exuberant assessment of a performance: “That was the bomb, Dawg!” For her, “the bomb” is atomic in nature and very destructive, and a “dog” is that four-legged furry friend that greets you at the door. So while we still use the terms liberty, freedom, equality–do they mean the same thing in our generation as they did to our forefathers?
Some eight- to twelve-year-olds were asked to define what freedom meant to them. Eight-year-old Randi summed it up this way: “I don’t have to go to school, and I can watch the Cartoon Network when I like. Oh, and it also means that I can have as much ice cream as I want.”
We smile at the answers of children, and yet those of us who are a bit older are not so different. If we were honest, many of our definitions would reflect our own skewed understanding that freedom is somehow connected to an indulgence of our wants. In a book on American cultural history, David Hackett Fischer explores the various meanings of liberty and freedom from cultural perspectives. In his research Fischer discovered that even though we use the words “liberty” and “freedom” interchangeably, they come from different origins. “Liberty” came to us from a Latin word that implied separation and independence, but the root meaning of “freedom” had the connotation of attachment: the rights of belonging in a community of free people. And therein lies the source of conflict in our definitions. Too often today we use both words to describe our independence that is often a code word for self-indulgence. However, freedom by its very nature comes with responsibility–responsibility to work that others may also experience the blessings of freedom.
In a Fourth of July address at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1962, President John F. Kennedy remarked: “As apt and applicable as the Declaration of Independence is today, we would do well to honor that other historic document drafted in this hall–the Constitution of the United States. For it stressed not independence but interdependence–not the individual liberty of one but the indivisible liberty of all.”
The famous preamble that U. S. history or civics teachers frequently ask their students to memorize, does not begin with a singular pronoun. But it begins with a collective declaration: “We, the people.” And we, the people come from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds–a fact that too often seems to be forgotten.
“We, the people” included a young Scottish immigrant who, in 1927, stood on board a ship as it steamed into New York Harbor past that famous lady with a torch, on to Ellis Island. Ten years later that same man was invited to become the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Special guests in his congregation included Franklin Roosevelt and other Washington leaders. And in 1947, Peter Marshall became the chaplain of the US Senate. He was known for his memorable invocations before the start of Senate sessions. In one such prayer Marshall stated, “Teach us that liberty is not only to be loved but also to be lived. Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. It costs too much to be hoarded. Help us see that our liberty is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to please to do what is right.”
Those words reflect a sense of sacred honor. They strike the same chord as that oft-repeated maxim that we know as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sometimes we say those words with no thought for the context of their first utterance. You see, they were spoken as part of a body of teachings from none other than Jesus himself. The Bible records these words in the Gospel of Matthew in a section commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. For three chapters, Jesus fleshes out a Golden Way of Living. He talks about how we are to treat our brothers and even our enemies. He describes what it means to be people of integrity, who honor our word. He addresses the importance of helping the needy–not to receive accolades of others, but because it is right. Jesus describes what relationships within community require. To paraphrase it in the words of our founding fathers, there is a mutual self-giving of ourselves, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
And so we come together as a community for this celebration of the Fourth with our hometown parades–a celebration that is in a very real sense in recognition of us all. It includes our veterans who have defended and protected the cause of freedom at great sacrifice. It honors our civil servants who hold public office, our emergency workers, our educators, our laborers, our businessmen and women, our students, our families. Unlike such professional parades as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Tournament of Roses Parade, hometown Fourth of July parades are not so much about being spectators. We ARE the parade! That’s our son marching in the Scout troop. That’s our daughter playing clarinet in the marching band. That’s our brother proudly driving his convertible with his whole family–including the dog–decked out in red, white, and blue. That’s our new friend who speaks with a different accent waving her flag in celebration.
As this parade passes by, some of you hoist your little ones onto your shoulders to give them a better vantage point. May each of us follow the example of those youngsters and clamber onto the shoulders of those who have gone before us. May we gain an understanding of where we’ve been as we honestly assess our history with its successes and its failures. May we gain a vision for the future that inspires us to battle humanity’s common enemies such as poverty, racism and the abuse of power. In the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, may we reach out our hands and our hearts past our private security fences to grasp the hands of our neighbors, until our reach stretches from sea to shining sea. But may it not stop there, for as President Kennedy reminded us in his inaugural address, we are not only members of the American community, but we are also citizens of the world. We join together to work for justice, equality, and freedom for all people wherever they are. As members of a vast community, recognizing our interdependence, may we here today mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
Happy Birthday, America. Be good to each other!